The Agenda

The Incandescent Bulb Divide

Kate Sheppard, a well-regarded environmental journalist at Mother Jones, has written a post that illustrates an interesting cultural and political divide:


Unemployment remains at record highs. The economy is stuck in a rut. The US is still fighting wars on two fronts and constant threats to security here at home. But the real menace facing America? The looming phase-out of incandescent light bulbs.

That’s the second-biggest threat to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (after healthcare reform)—at least if you’re Erick Erickson. The Red State blogger has launched a campaign to save the old-school bulbs, which, under the 2007 energy bill, are set to begin phasing out in 2012 in favor of more energy-efficient compact florescent bulbs. Erickson wants to “get every Republican out there to pledge their support to saving the incandescent light bulb when they take back Congress.”

As Sheppard goes on to note, this campaign has drawn support from a number of congressional Republicans and Republican candidates. Sheppard also touts the virtues of CFLs:


Yes, compact fluorescent bulbs do cost $3 on average (compared to 50 cents for the older bulbs), but they last five years and use 75 percent less electricity than incandescent bulbs, meaning they save money in the long run. That’s the point of the phase-out: there are better options now available. And concerns about disposal of CFLs are vastly overstated.

But this is a matter of liberty for Erickson—the freedom to choose wasteful, inefficient lighting is an American right, darn it.

Yet Sheppard doesn’t mention one of the central objections to CFLs, namely the relatively harsh and unappealing light they produce. Leora Broydo Vestel interviewed Michael Siminovitch, director of the California Lighting Technology Center at the University of California, Davis, on this subject last year. And Siminovitch — a fan of CFLs who, I strongly suspect, doesn’t share my political views, or for that matter those of Erickson — makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of the issue:

Incandescent light sources typically are very flattering in terms of rendering skin and enhancing how we look. Consumers got used to a very high level of color quality in the home. Compact fluorescents can be some departure or produce less color quality in terms of rendering color inside a space.


Some fluorescents are very good, but many are not. I think what we’re seeing today is we’re starting to bump up against our expectations for color quality in the home not being met by the energy efficient technologies. So consumers are dissatisfied — and rightfully so.

The next big [issue] is dimming. Many fluorescents that are available do not dim well. Incandescent lamps dim very nicely. They dim all the way from 100 percent light all the way to 0 percent light. They do it very smoothly and very predictably. Consumers are used to that kind of smooth dimming.

Typically when you dim a compact fluorescent it can flicker, it can buzz, it can create all kinds of what I call “unintended consequences” that disturb the consumer. So the consumer is left with a less-than-satisfied level with this kind of technology.

The third big one is product longevity. Consumers have an expectation that compact fluorescents will last a very long time — significantly longer than the incandescents that they’re replacing. This is technically achievable. Compact fluorescents can last a very long time. Unfortunately, I think we’ve compromised greatly on quality with many compact fluorescents and these things are not lasting quite as long as consumers have been led to believe. This is an issue.

Siminovitch goes on to explain why these low-quality CFLs have been brought to market:

Early compact fluorescents came into the marketplace as a … technology that’s small, very compact and can fit in places where we traditionally put incandescent lamps, and it has the opportunity for great color, long life and all the kinds of attributes we’d like to see in a light source. But it was expensive. It was an order of magnitude more expensive than what we were traditionally using.

So there was great pressure by agencies, by retailers, to bring the cost down on this technology so that we can get big market penetration. Unfortunately, given the lack of really good, understandable specifications, what happened was when you reduce price you inevitably compromise something. In the case of compact fluorescents, we’ve compromised on quality.

The central virtue of CFLs, according to Sheppard, is their cost advantage, and Siminovitch suggests that this cost advantage through compromised quality:


We’ve gone too far on this thing, and what’s happened is some of these compact fluorescent technologies have become so inexpensive [that] at the same time they’ve lost a lot of their intrinsic quality. And they don’t last very long. And this is bad because the end result here is that yes, we have a very inexpensive technology, consumers will buy it, but they have a long memory.

Product failures instill a lack of confidence in the technology.

Note that Siminovitch has said nothing that reflect a libertarian ideological bent. To return to Sheppard’s post, one could frame things another way: at a time when the federal government is badly overstretched, we passed a law that mandates consumer use of a deeply flawed technology. This instills a lack of confidence in our legislators.

Fortunately, we’ve seen a wave of innovation in the incandescent light bulb space, spurred in part by the 2007 legislation. Advocates of the ban might see this as vindication of their stance. But I’m not so sure. As Edward Tenner wrote last summer, there are many moving pieces at work:

We still can’t rule out short-term bottlenecks with new incandescent designs. Automated light bulb factories turned out to be very difficult to engineer in the early 20th century. Between the wars, the Hungarian-born physical chemist and philosopher of science Michael Polanyi was a light bulb inventor and a consultant to the Hungarian lighting industry. In his book The Tacit Dimension he cited the surprisingly long time required to resolve problems with light bulb production lines in Budapest that had been operating smoothly with the same equipment in England. Scaling up the new designs around the world might be challenging. The incandescent bulb has proved so popular because decades of incremental changes in production technology had produced such a lean system. 

Moreover, Tenner goes on to write, “low manufacturing standards and inadequate recycling plans for CFLs can also negate their environmental benefits.” I’d much prefer getting electricity prices right, and then letting consumers choose the products they’d like to use. I’m guessing that there are many people who’d agree with me. The ban on traditional incandescent bulbs has attracted attention for a pretty good reason: it is an accessible symbol of a broader centralizing tendency that a lot of Americans find objectionable.


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